I find it awfully difficult to care about county elections. Luckily, Ben Adler seems willing to look at them, and he picked up something interesting:
Unlike the New York City mayoral, or the Virginia governor’s race, there is a really bad sign for Democrats out of the East Coast:… Republicans made inroads in New York’s suburbs.
Why does this matter so much? Because the New York suburbs epitomize the new Blue America. Twenty-some-odd years ago, the economically diverse, but generally affluent, suburbs in Westchester and Long Island represented the success of the Reagan Revolution…But the New York suburbs led the way back to Democratic dominance, arguably presaging the Obama coalition.
I have written often about the strange alliance of very high and very low incomes that defines the modern Democratic party – the working class and the intellectual property class. It’s my version of “flat earth,” I suppose. So I’m a bit jealous that someone else spotted this.
The congressional map of New England is entirely blue; Fairfield County was the last county to turn when it fired Chris Shays. New York is down to two Republican congressional districts. It’s hard to feel vulnerable in the Northeast.
Still, one of the great opportunities for Democrats going forward was the emerging reliance upon intellectual property jobs. We are not literally going to turn into 300 million actors and bond traders, even if it sometimes seems that way, but the value-added component of high-wage work will increasingly be the intellect of the operator. That can mean something as basic as the capacity to operate a CNC machine, or it can be more – implementing systems, designing equipment, inventing products.
The more a task requires intellect, the more likely the person performing it will embrace at least some aspect of the current Democratic value space. Social liberalism, to start with – you aren’t going to find a lot of decent doctors who don’t believe in evolution. The guy might not call himself a Democrat – Mike Bloomberg isn’t, although he is well to the left of the Blue Dogs – but the name doesn’t matter that much. And I’ll even imagine some level of fiscal liberalism, at least insofar as the great infrastructure plays are concerned: schools and roads.
Where there is a massive gap among Democrats is on the tax line. The rich Democrats are paying the taxes that go, through various routes, to the poor Democrats. And that is only moderately sustainable.
The poor Democrats demand a lot of social services. Health care, education, mass transit. The rich Democrats use different services – who do you think really benefits from the roads and police and court system – but since these services have been provided by government since before we were a nation, all sides conveniently forget that these are government services at all.
The solution would be to find a way to provide the enhanced services poor Democrats want at the price rich Democrats are willing to pay. It’s the answer of every cornered politician in a debate – pay for it “by eliminating waste.”
Real waste in state services does not come from people using two cups every time they get coffee, or leaving the lights on at night. It comes from paying people too much and getting too little work out of them. Fighting the waste means firing people, cutting wages, eliminating contracts and overlapping jurisdictions. It means picking fights.
The Obama administration has not gotten much done. Yet. Perhaps it will in the future; it is handicapped by a truly terrible Senate Majority Leader and seems so terrified of losing a power play that it doesn’t want to make one at all. But even where it does seem to be making slow progress toward doing something, it seems to refuse to make an enemy.
Take health care. We have drifted toward some sort of legislation. There will be some good stuff – bans on rescission and lifetime caps, some modified form of community rating, etc. There might or might not be a public option, which in its initial form will probably apply to eleven people in eastern Montana. What there will not be is any serious attempt at cost control. Medicare negotiating drug prices? No, we’ll make our deal with PhRMA and go home. Serious penalties for non-enrollment? Well, maybe a little fine. Pushback on hospitals with a history of high costs? Just kidding.
I get it – this is politics, and the goal is building coalitions, not standing on principle. But here’s the problem: the suburban voters in the rich Democratic counties want to see Obama take someone on. Their big demand is that their money be spent more wisely, and that is the one thing the administration is unwilling or unable to provide.
Some things about economics are not obvious. It’s a bit weird for people who do not live with financial statements to understand how single payer could actually be the cheapest of all coverage models. Shouldn’t it cost less to cover one fewer person…or two…or three (yeah, but the expensive part is deciding who to leave out)? But there are areas where the gut might be right. A guy who refuses to run his existing programs with a tight leash is unlikely to run a new program any more frugally. A guy who always seems to be asking for a new program and never seems to be pruning existing programs probably isn’t too focused on cutting things. Well, when times are tough and people don’t feel as flush, is that the guy you want?
Successful leaders need to punch their base in the face on some issue. It can be tiny – Bill Clinton’s Sister Soulja break with the far left – or huge – Winston Churchill telling the conservatives that Clement Atlee’s NHS would stay. People who cannot say no to their base – Reagan, Dubya – squander the treasure they are charged with defending.
Voters want smaller government; they just like each program individually. Voters are dumb. What they really mean is that they want you to treat their money as though it had value. The bailout of the auto companies was always going to be unpopular outside the Rust Belt, but it was necessary to keep the region from tipping over in the spring. Fine. Suppose as part of the sweetheart deal the government gave the UAW in jumping the creditors in the bankruptcy process, it demanded a $5/hour pay cut across the board. It would have sent a signal.
Suppose that the banks had been put through receivership and the debt crammed down. Might people feel differently about government investment in the sector if they saw market participants lose money?
Whether through apathy-induced lack of turnout or affirmative defection to creative Republicans who put Palin/Armey on mute, the Democrats can lose their majorities. But they don’t have to. They just have to be seen as actually doing something to deliver a better government.